Submittable, next to email and international postal service carrier providers, is probably the largest literary submissions platform in existence in current humanity. I think that a lot, if not, at this point, most writers who have submitted their work to journals and contests have at some point interacted with this company, but I don’t know if anyone stopped to ask, What is this thing I am sending my work to? I decided I’m asking. Michael’s cool. He used to edit a DIY/Punk ‘Zine called FAT when he lived in Budapest. Now he does this. I figured if anyone wants to start a publishing related company, they could read about these guys.
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: Hi Michael. Thanks so much for talking to us about Submittable. How did Submittable start as a concept and get rolling as a company?
MICHAEL FITZGERALD: Bruce and I were friends and thought it might be fun to start a company together. We didn’t know what we wanted the company to be. Neither of us had business experience. (We once made a documentary about alpinists who exclusively scale mountains with letters on them.)
At lunch one day, we made a list of things that sucked. I had just sent out a story the night before to five or so places. The process and tools people were using were sort of scattered and amateur. So, in the list, I added “Sending Out Work.” Bruce asked about it. I said it was a nightmare finding appropriate journals, sending them work on all these different systems and then tracking the submissions. He said, “It’s a Submishmash.” We started writing code that night. A few months later we tricked our other friend, John Brownell, into joining us. A year later, we had a few hundred clients.
But we kept running into problems with large universities and businesses. The IT people and administrators were suspect of something called Submishmash. It was always a struggle to get them to write a check, and our bills were piling up. So we renamed it to Submittable. It’s a little soul-crushing, but our revenue instantly doubled. We went almost three years before making a living of any kind. We originally thought it would take two or three weeks.
Dear Jim, Scott, Graydon, Hugo, Josh, and Adam:
I hope I don’t mind that I’m calling you by your first names, even though I know only one of you. (Josh and I go way back.) I realize I could have just said, “Hey guys!” which, come to think of it, really makes my point for me. But I wanted this…
One of our most popular features has been the ability to post calls for work and job openings to your personal Facebook, Twitter, or Linkedin pages. Last night, we released a similar but more powerful feature: the ability to create a full Facebook Event around a submission category or job listing.
In his essay “Historical Inevitability,” the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin dissects the widespread human tendency to assume that history is moving in some specific direction, or according to some pattern, that we can discover. Thinkers across parties and cultural divisions and eras–theologians no less than Marxists, Enlightenment philosophers as well as fascists–have attempted to justify or understand present behaviors in the light of various predictions about the future whose truths seem self-evident to them and their followers. What Berlin so persuasively points out is that even the most prodigious minds are capable of making utterly unwarranted assumptions of this kind. People offer brilliant arguments, often based on empirical observation and data, about how we should act in the present, and yet each assertion and piece of evidence is arranged in relation to some resoundingly unscientific conjecture about the future. We all know we can’t predict the future, and yet we fall for these arguments over and over…
We use our Resume Manager tool for accepting job applicants. A dozen or so applicants come each week. (Thank you!) Recently we realized we occasionally forget to respond in a timely manner to people who have applied. This feels crappy…..
Out of everyone in this food chain, at the end of the day, only I, the author, am publicly recognized. The designer isn’t, except in rare cases like with Chip Kidd. Neither is the printer. The publisher’s name is, at best, a fetish of insiders and book enthusiasts who know who the ‘best’ publishers are. But the book is a billboard for and a direct extension of the author. I also don’t entirely agree that writing is becoming devalued. Some writing is. And people giving it away for free doesn’t help. But brands needs good writing more than ever now that the internet is a common marketplace. Writing for the traditional outlets might not be the way to get paid, but being able to communicate well via the written word is an incredibly valuable skill. (Three of our 5 employees are CW majors.)
In any case, I (this is Michael FitzGerald, a founder here at Submittable) recently realized that I had never really thought about the business of publishing when I was exclusively trying to be an author. I assumed that if I worked hard and created a book, money would take care of itself. Never in a million years did it occur to me that part of the process would involve getting a great designer paid. In retrospect, this seems a bit narcissistic. I completely ignored all the other people I’d need to make the book a public (and sellable) object. Now that I have a company, I realize I don’t think twice about making sure everyone is paid for the work involved to make and sell the product that is Submittable. Most of our employees work tirelessly with little to no personal recognition. But, we pay them, not much by industry standards, but something. And in the end, if the stars align, I’m paid something too. I don’t think 1 individual paying 15K upfront is the answer, but the process should be more transparent and people should be paid for their efforts.
Simon & Schuster probably isn’t as devious as we suspect. (Although, I do feel the American legal entity known as a “corporation” is basically license to do whatever you want in the name of profit.) But really, S&S probably came up with that price from their own cost analysis of how much it cost to pay all the professionals involved combined with some standard profit margin (I’d guess around 20%)? Roxane says her press, Tiny Hardcore, can put a book out for significantly cheaper. I believe her, but also suspect she doesn’t pay herself or anyone an annual salary to run the press, which is fine, but makes it a different thing entirely than a public company like S&S who has thousands of employees and their families to think of.
Also, people rarely get the price right with their first version of a product, so the 15K will mostly likely go up or down depending on demand and competition. One of the many problems with traditional publishers, esp. in NYC, is that they’ve grown to mature businesses with pretty insane fixed-costs but are now in an industry that’s upside down. My guess is the S&S bean counters think $15,000 is pretty cheap. Most likely the market will tell them differently.
I don’t disagree that charging someone $15,000 dollars seems more than craven, but it sounds more complicated than just some malicious entity trying to cash in on someone’s vanity.
How to add a deadline to a call for work.
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